After almost a month in the toasty ocean paradise of Puerto Escondido, it was time for us to move on and sample more of Mexico’s craziness. Having made plans to spend Christmas in the Yucatan with Liivi’s family, the logical next stopoff was the city of Oaxaca, which lies roughly halfway between Puerto and Cancun.
Oaxaca came highly recommended from those travellers we had talked to in Puerto, the problem was actually getting there – hundreds of kilometres of harrowing mountain passes and winding jungle backroads separated us and our destination. 3 travel options were available to us, but really only one was viable: flying = too fucking expensive (400+ CAD each), busing = moderately expensive and too fucking long (around 15 hours according to reputable sources), which only left one: the dreaded collectivo.
I forget whether I’ve previously taken the time to explain what a collectivo is, but essentially it’s just an airport shuttle van which doesn’t go to the airport. The benefit of the collectivo option is that it’s way cheaper than the bus and takes essentially half the time. The catch is that, in order to cut down on travel time, the collectivo traverses the worst of the mountain roads for 7 grueling hours, with even the most seasoned roadies sometimes subsequently transformed into stomach-expunging wastrels. One of our hostel contacts had informed us that there were two collectivo companies, however Villa Pacifico was the obvious choice on account of it being considerably less shit than the other (note the use of “less shit” rather than “better”).
The Drive from Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca City
Not to be daunted by a few twists and turns, we rocked up to the Villa Pacifico “terminal” at 10am and were eventually herded on to a rather ramshackle excuse for a van. A few of the collectivo personnel fiddled with the handle on the boot/trunk for a while, then we loaded up and were on our merry way. Thus ensued a rather interesting ride through the Sierra Madre Del Sur, including:
– nonstop, incredibly annoying Mexican music blaring from the van stereo
– a faulty latch on the boot/trunk handle, which resulted in Liivi’s bag being dumped onto the road twice during the trip, at which point the driver would realize the boot was open, slam on the brakes, his friend would jump out, walk 200 metres back down the road and bring the bag back, laughing his head off and not in the slightest bit apologetic
– a number of stops along the way to pick up random people who obviously paid a small fee to the driver to get taken wherever they needed to go. The driver seemed very keen to pick these people up, so we suspected that he simply pocketed the cash and didn’t tell his company about it.
In any case, our interesting trip came to an end a very long 8 hours later. We gratefully jumped out, caught a cab to our Airbnb apartment, and spent 5 days exploring.
Oaxaca City Attractions
It turns out that Oaxaca city is kind of a big deal, with much of the old city classified as a World Heritage Site. This is due to the huge selection of colonial buildings, pre-Columbian structures and archaeological sites. That being said, Oaxaca seemed quite similar to many of the other colonial Mexican cities we’d already visited, particularly Morelia and Puebla. Nonetheless, we made a point of checking out the notable parts of the city, including:
- taking a stroll to the ever-present Zocalo and checking out all the cool old colonial buildings which surrounded the square
- observing the ecclesiastical might of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo
- browsing the extensive selection of Oaxacan ice cream stalls (mostly complete rubbish) and the even more extensive selection of cool artisan shops.
Day Tour of Hierve el Agua, Mitla, and the Tule Tree
By this point in our travels, we had been doing all our own trip planning and negotiation for 5 straight months, and we were downright sick of it. With this in mind, we decided to swallow our pride and become the very thing we despised: tour junkies.
We really wanted to see the springs at Hierve el Agua, and really the only way to get there was to rent a car and drive through some sad excuses for roads (we’d done more than enough of that around Mexico City), take a super expensive taxi or join a day tour. The last option was by far the least stressful, and offered the additional benefit of letting us see a number of other cool attractions in one day. We used the Tourism Convent of Oaxaca, which offered the full day tour with lunch and was very reasonably priced at around CAD$40 (not including around another $10 each for entry to the various parks and reserves).
First stop was a traditional Zapotec textile production facility. We were rolling our eyes as we pulled up, thinking this was just another money grabber where they show you a few things then expect you to buy everything in their shop. While we DID end up buying some of the cool carpets and bags, it wasn’t out of any real obligation – it was actually really high quality stuff, and the main guy (who could still speak fluent Zapotec, which is a curious language) spent a long time showing us how they made their products, including demonstrating the loom they use, the natural dyes from plants and animals, and various other tools of the trade.
Next, we mosied on over to Hierve el Agua, which is one of the top rated attractions around Oaxaca. Believed to be a sacred place by the ancient Zapotecs, Hierve el Agua (roughly translated as “boiling water”) boasts one of only two calcified waterfalls in the world, along with large spring-fed pools perched atop hills overlooking the valley far below – essentially a natural infinity pool. While Hierve el Agua was something of a mission to get to, it was well worth it just for the views. We didn’t take a dip in the pools as they actually looked quite murky and uninviting (sadly, I don’t think the Mexicans were doing a very good job of keeping this place in good shape), but we did discover a sneaky pathway which wound below the springs and offered some awesome views of the 30 metre calcified falls.
After spending an hour or so at Hierve el Agua (not really enough time, but there’s a lot to cram in with this tour) we descended the mountain passes and arrived at our lunch venue – a traditional Oaxacan buffet restaurant. We were a little hesitant as to the quality of the food at first, but it actually ended up being an excellent lunch, with dozens of mysterious bubbling cauldrons of curious Oaxacan stews, delicious tostadas and pico de gallo, and an acceptable range of deserts.
Continuing our day tour of Oaxacan curiosities, the next stop was Mitla, aka the Place of the Dead. Named rather ominously so by the Nahautl and used by the Zapotec as a place of ceremonial and religious importance, the name became a self-fulfilling prophecy during it’s history as it’s inhabitants were wiped out multiple times by various invading cultures, including the Aztecs and the Spanish. Today, the well-preserved ruins of Mitla are valued for their highly elaborate mosaics and geometric designs which cover the tombs and temples. Our tour guide did a good job of explaining the significance of the site and some of the cooler parts of the ruins, then we moved on (but not before sitting on an oversized poof cactus).
Following Mitla, we cruised on over to a mezcal factory, where they produce this delicious spirit the traditional way. Mezcal is tequila’s lesser known but higher quality cousin, where the fruit of the agave is first naturally fermented, then smoked in a huge underground pit, then crushed into pulp by an unfortunate mule pulling a large grindwheel around in a circle, and finally distilled and aged to produce a spirit with a similar look and consistency to vodka.
The tour took us through all these steps, then allowed us to sample an unlimited quantity of various kinds of mezcal products. Needless to say, we were very much in love with agave by the end of the tour.
Our final stop was the Tule Tree – a 2000 year old, 40 metre high, 53 metre wide (the widest in the world, apparently), 509 ton behemoth. We only spent around half an hour here, but it was awesome strolling around and looking up at this freakishly massive hunk of vegetation.
Returning back to the city and feeling satisfied with our days accomplishments, we viewed an outrageous Mexican wedding taking place outside of the cathedral, then strolled home to make preparations for the next leg of our trip.